Thursday, 30 July 2015

ALF #32: "Short Story!"

("Leave comedy to the bears!")


From the tasteless pun that starts this issue to its final moral on how much it sucks to be a little person, this is a deeply frustrating issue. In part that's because there's quite a bit I like here.

So let's start with the positive. Putting the focus on Puck is a tremendous idea, because Puck is awesome for all sorts of reasons. Indeed, it strikes me as I write this that I haven't given him sufficient credit.  Puck is brilliant. Not only is he a man entirely without super-powers who has trained himself to the extent where he can operate quite happily in the world of capes, he's done this despite suffering from achondroplasia. In a world still having trouble seeing little people as anything beyond a casting pool for sci-fi films and pantomime, Puck is not just showing himself to be the equal of those of average height, but superior to most of them. Some might like to argue it unrealistic that someone suffering achondroplasia could achieve such a physical peak, but even were such people to persuade me they had the medical knowledge and/or direct experience to make that call, this is a superhero comic. Unrealistic physical feats are literally what they are all about. It is, to say the very least, hard to see how Puck's fitness and strength are more implausible than those of Batman, or Hawkeye, or Daredevil. Just as importantly, Puck's abilities here are serving a worthwhile purpose, pushing back against the idea that little people are no more than pratfalls and problems with door handles. Why choose this moment to take a stand on how comic stories should realistically depict the human frame and its limitations? Well, I know full well why, but I'm hoping the rhetorical question will scare off the those inclined to argue the point.

Puck's impressive levels of fitness is also the springboard for this particular plot. Heather Hudson has been talking for several issues now about wanting to get into the cape game, and finally she has her chance thanks to Jeffries and Bochs having rebuilt the powered suit "Dark Guardian" had been wearing during her period of pretending to be the original Vindicator.  Fighting in the armour your husband's killer wore to pretend to be him? Even George R. R. Martin hasn't tried that one yet. Or maybe he has; it's tough to keep track.

Heather's desire to up her game slapping-wise provides Puck with something of a dilemma, though, because she wants him to provide the training (in the new Alpha Flight Danger Room, modelled on Xavier's original). On the one hand, that would mean lots more time hanging out with his secret love, but on the other, Puck doesn't want to encourage Heather in any endeavour that might lead to her getting hurt or worse. That's not an easy problem to navigate, and indeed Eugene screws it up, yelling at Heather for messing around where she doesn't belong (mere seconds after she's almost blown up by a brace of missiles, in his defence), mightily pissing her off in the process.

Poor Puck. What's a secretly love-sick super-acrobat to do?  Well, he could try actually telling Heather how he feels. Puck's behaviour here is a problem because he won't give Heather the information she needs to understand why he won't train her. Refusing to help put the one you love in danger is a bit of an issue when they're asking you to do just that - it's hard to think of a way to define real love that encompasses the total refusal to respect your loved one's choices -  but it's even worse when you won't let them know why.  But as poor a showing this is on Puck's behalf, it's an entirely understandable, entirely human one. Who hasn't been desperately in love with someone and been convinced that fact could never be revealed? And when that someone is the former spouse of your dead friend, I'd imagine that cranks the complications dial up a few notches, too.

If that were all that were going on here, I'd be perfectly happy. I'd feel bad for Heather, trying to work out why her friend is acting so out of character, and I'd feel bad for Puck, because as flawed and unreasonable as he is he's trying to do what he thinks is the right thing. But then Mantlo has to push it a stage too far and have Eugene admit to Bochs (who he derides as a "cripple", just to make everything even nastier) that part of the problem here is that he thinks Heather is too wonderful a woman to settle for a dwarf.

And this simply isn't on. I'm not saying there is no such thing as a little person who believes their lack of height somehow disqualifies them from dating anyone closer to the population average. I'm saying that's not a suggestion we want reinforcing. It's entirely too well-ingrained already.  The existence, opinions and mental states of self-hating little people are not subjects that writers of average height should be dabbling in. Hell, I may just have linked to it to demonstrate a point, but even Life's Too Short bothered me a great deal on multiple occasions, and that was written with Warwick Davies' direct input and whilst Merchant and Gervais were presumably trying to atone for getting the nomenclature so wrong in an episode of the Office. Getting this right is hard.

Maybe that's why Mantlo decides that this is the issue where he will reveal Judd isn't a little person by birth, but has been shrunk by an evil Baghdad spirit which has lived within him for decades. If that is the reason - and I see no evidence of a better one - then it's a horribly wrongheaded one. Revealing a member of a minority isn't one at all is a despicable story move; a conscious choice to make a title less diverse. And for what? So we can have 14 or so pages of a giant jet-black Arabian demon (who I'm also less than happy about by the way) attack our heroes? I'd be furious with what Mantlo was doing here whatever the specifics, but at the very least you'd hope the story that results from learning Judd's dwarfism was mystical in nature would lead to something more involved than a done-in-one fight with a djinn named Razer. Razer? Tuwthbrush was taken, was it? Loofarh didn't quite scan? Don't try to tell me loofahs are less dangerous than razors, either; those things could scratch your eyes out quite happily so long as you keep them out of the bath long enough.

This isn't even a good story. The pacing is truly awful. At one point Aurora finds herself alone against Razer attempting to keep him from killing her unconscious brother, and Jeffries announces she can deal with the monster herself so Puck can explain why he's almost seven foot tall now. Speaking of which, this sudden change in age makes it all the more obvious how unnecessary the change to Puck's stature is. It's revealed here that Razer's presence inside Puck caused not only the agony Bryne had attributed to Eugene's achondroplasia (one of around 200 different forms of dwarfism, and so one would think it rather a specific diagnosis for something mystical in nature), and the condition itself, but a retarding of Eugene's aging process, so that he appears decades younger than his actual seventy one years would suggest.  So why not just have Razer's escape from his body cause Puck to become a seventy-one year old little person? Why link Puck's stature into this at all?

Alas, the answer is not difficult to discern. Razer's escape returns Eugene to his old height simply so he can sacrifice his "normality" and become a dwarf again to re-absorb the djinn. The subtext here is almost deafening: "How awful it must be to be a dwarf". And there's nothing you can do with that idea but stare at it hatefully and hope it will shrivel up and die from the sheer force of your loathing. Mantlo is telling us being a little person must be terrible at the same time as he removes the identity of that little person in front of our eyes. John Byrne has gone on record about how much he didn't like this story, and he's completely right. There are far too many people who won't understand what I mean by this, but by replacing a determined, irrepressible man with achondroplasia with a tall man cursed by a djinn to live in agony as a magic dwarf, Mantlo has made the Marvel Universe that little bit less filled with wonder.


This story takes place in approximately real time. There are no references to how long it's been since, so I'll take this opportunity to move the action forwards a full month to bring Alpha Flight closer to the parent title.


Friday 24th August 1984.



Contemporary Events

It's the last full day in the life of Truman Capote.

Standout Line

There's nothing particularly pretty or well-formed in this whole issue, so instead I present an example of just how ugly Mantlo's prose can get.  This is truly, truly clumsy stuff.

"The turret blows off the tower enclosing the elevator shaft up which the pain-wracked Puck had been ascending to the roof when he collapsed."


Tuesday, 14 July 2015

DAZ #42: "Curtain!"

(Sound Mathematics)


Spoiler alert: this is not a good final issue.

I've been complaining for a little while now about how the final stages of Dazzler's title seem to be pushing her towards the margins of her own story. This final instalment is no exception.  Of the 24 pages in this issue, Dazzler is completely missing from seven.  In nine more, she can be seen (often in the background) but has no dialogue.  That means Dazzler actually gets to pass comment on this story in only one third of the comic's pages.

Compare this to the final issues of Wolverine, Iceman, and Longshot, the other three titles we've considered here that have a single main character (admittedly all three were mini-series rather than ongoings). Dazzler is seen in 71% of these pages and heard from on just 33%. Those numbers are 64%/50%, 91%/65%, and 80%/76% for Wolverine, Iceman and Longshot respectively.

I trust you see the problem, but just to make it explicit: Dazzler is the only title character who spends more than half her final issue not speaking (to other characters or to us via thought bubbles). Indeed for fully two-thirds of the issue she is completely silent. Only Wolverine comes close to matching that, and that's because the structure of WOL #4 deliberately strictly rations Logan's appearances in the first half to ratchet up expectations. Likewise the low level of Wolverine's commentary is at least in part due to pages of silent swordplay, rather than Dazzler passing out or appearing in the background of other people's flashbacks.

There is, however, an argument that I'm being unfair here. Of course she spends most of this issue saying nothing; her enemy here is literally named Silence. This is why Dust's wife is so existential a threat to Alison. She doesn't just want Dazzler dead, she wants her silenced. This must surely be the scariest fate imaginable for a singer; to be worked to death and not even get a song out of it. Silence is the ultimate manifestation of what anti-mutant protesters want from her: to crawl into a corner and die without making a fuss.  Every time someone told he she couldn't sing because she was bad, or that she could never sing professionally because she wasn't pretty enough, or that she shouldn't be allowed to sing because she was a mutant; these were all demands for silence to claim her. Silence's assault upon Alison manages to do what this title intermittently tried with varying degrees of success - parallel Dazzler's professional and personal crises.

Not that dying in silence is something only a singer or a mutant need fear, of course. The concern that we will die without the chance to speak out terrifies all of us. It's why we're so obsessed with people's last words. It's why when we dream of nobly sacrificing ourselves it's for some great cause that will outlive us and venerate our sacrifice. It's hardwired into every teenager's belief that they might die, and "then they'll be sorry". When you comprehend death as a statement, or even a moral message, the idea it might take place whilst you are utterly silent is terrifying. So when Dazzler ultimately breaks free here by short-circuiting her own powers so that instead of turning sound into light she absorbs and redirects the sound directly, she is literally refusing to be silenced, and that act of total defiance destroys Silence, guaranteeing Dazzler her voice.

All of which is actually rather clever. So why am I unhappy? It's because whilst Goodwin is taking great pains to silence Dazzler, he's more than happy to let others do all the talking, and the result feels more than ever as though Dazzler is simply guest-starring in her own strip.  Not only do we again have O.Z. Chase and his mutt taking up space, but he's joined by Beast in his quest to rescue Alison.  Adding in Beast is a terrible idea for two reasons. Firstly, it hearkens back to the "Beauty and the Beast" mini-series, which Ann Nocenti didn't do a very good job with (the difference between this and her incredible "Longshot" mini is remarkable), and therefore carries with it all the problems of that earlier story. More importantly, though, inserting a character who has (on and off) being a Marvel mainstay for over two decades overbalances the narrative. This is no surprise, of course, this is what big names from other branches of a franchise do if they're given any more than a spit and a cough. We might call what Goodwin does here "The Enterprise Manoeuvre" after its most infamous deployment, and whilst that's a particularly egregious example, it almost never works well, because either the narrative is warped by the character into something unrecognisable as the story you are ending, or that warping is avoided and the interloper feels entirely tacked on.

Here we have the former problem, with Beast teaming up with Chase to beat up some New Wave hoods and then breaking into Silence's HQ to rescue Dazzler. The final battle of the first superheroine to get her own book in the X-Universe, and she spends most of it as a princess needing rescue. To be fair to Goodwin, he does manage to temper this somewhat, with Chase and Beast ultimately merely distracting enough of Silence's guards that Dazzler can defeat Silence herself, but the focus is far too much on how O.Z. and Hank track Alison down, and too little on how Alison ultimately refuses to surrender to Silence. This problem is added to by the inclusion of the almost brand new character Arthur Allan Smith (he first appeared last issue), a troubled young man rarely out of one institution or another, but who once caught Alison singing as a support act at a rock gig and fell in love with her. The gig also activated Smith's New Wave powers, allowing him to both sense Alison is now in danger and escape so he can help her out.

As with the overall Silence plot, there are things to appreciate here. Smith's ability to be ignored in plain sight is almost certainly a nod towards the geeky teenagers assumed to be comics' primary consumers - the big clue here is that he's a massive fan of what we know to be a comic book heroine - which ties the reader in to the story. And the idea that Dazzler is ultimately saved because her art touched the life of someone she didn't even know and one day he decided to repay her is a really rather touching one; it's already too late for Silence to silence Alison, because the songs are already out there, echoing back in ways that cannot be anticipated.

On the other hand, though, the problem with a fan rescuing Dazzler here is obvious: it is the fans who have killed her, by not buying the book. They may have had very good reasons for not buying the book - it should be clear from my posts that I think the title's best days ended long before this issue, and that Goodwin was tasked with trying to pull up a stalled plane with its engine on fire. But whatever the motivation, kill it they did. The cover even suggests Marvel readers demanded the title come to an end. The comic even references this with the ultimate solution to the stand-off with a revived Dust involving Smith shooting the undead villain and then using his powers to make everyone think the cadaver is Alison's (this is the second time in two issues that Dust has been shot by a man with a gun just as he's about to beat Dazzler). The end result is hopelessly murky. The fans have killed Dazzler... in order to save her? So that she can go join X-Factor? Help me out here.

Really though my objection to Smith is that he's just one more character in this issue who isn't Dazzler who takes up space and who the titular heroine then needs to have save her. Combine that with the slightly icky way in which this feeds into the teenage boy dream of gaining a pretty girl's gratitude by rescuing her from harm (trying to capture her interest when not in the slightest danger is apparently right out), and Smith's inclusion seems to raise more problems than it does potential.

Ultimately, most of the problems I have here stem from this being the comic's finale. Silence's negation of Alison for much of the comic, Beast's cameo, the strange interference of Arthur Allan Smith might all work just fine as parts of an ongoing story. But by throwing them all in together at the very end does Dazzler - and Dazzler - a huge disservice. With the title having gone through so many artist teams and accordingly so many iterations, a coherent conclusion to the whole run was never really possible.  But that's not really the point here. The point is that at the very least, the last Dazzler story should have been about Dazzler finally getting to shape her own fate, and that small, simple thing is entirely denied to her - and to us - as the curtain finally falls.


This story takes place two days after Dazzler agrees to help Silence, and takes place over two more days.

The story ends with Beast inviting Dazzler to join - or at least meet - X-Factor. This causes all sorts of colossal problems, since events in Uncanny X-Men forced the formation of X-Factor to take place in April at the earliest, three full months after where we've been placing Alison's adventures up to this point.

The solution to this is to pull DAZ #39 a good deal forward, since that is the latest issue which doesn't directly tie in with the one following. We need to be careful when doing this, though, because DAZ #40 features the Beyonder in his pre-massacre mood. Fortunately the Beyonder goes berserk sufficiently late in the course of Secret Wars II that it doesn't really affect things here. As a result we have that O.Z. Chase was hunting Dazzler down for a loooooooong time, but then America is a pretty big place, and he had to make a lot of stops for his dog to drink in bars, so I guess it makes sense.


Thursday 11th to Friday 12th April, 1985.


X+6Y+40 to X+6Y+41.

Contemporary Events

Socialist leader of Albania for over 43 years, Enver Hoxha dies in office.

Standout Line

"Silence enfolds every sense you possess... strangles every emotion until you have no choice but to shatter! Break!"

This much I will give this last story: Silence is an absolutely wonderful villain. Is there any person more likely to become selfish and cruel to the point of actual evil than someone who is physically pained by having to listen to anyone but herself? If Dazzler hadn't killed her she'd be David Cameron's cabinet right now.